If there was one thing I had to choose that sets humans apart from other life forms, it would be our ability to tell stories. From fairy tales, to politics, story telling is the single most astonishing thing that humanity has created. Stories are in self-talk, stories are in religion, stories are in culture and stories are in nationality. Stories are what makes humanity. Story telling is both the narrative we tell ourselves and others, and the imaginative creations we like to share. All of human life is born of our ability to tell stories.
What is a truly crazy idea is the fact that all of human life, every government, economy, politic, and nationality is a story we have told ourselves, one that got really out of hand.
The concept of nationality, for example, is such an abstract story that it makes little sense when actually thought about. The collective belief in this story about who you are and where you come from is so deeply rooted in people’s conscience that throughout history, and increasingly today, people have lobbed such hatred at anyone from outside, at anyone other. The concept of borders between countries is completely arbitrary. The idea is that one metre this way and you’re in Scotland (or insert country of choice) but one metre that way and you’re in England (or bordering country of choice). The people who “belong” to different sides of this line are completely different, with different cultures, identities, ways of being, ways of viewing the world, cuisines and even languages.
These differences, though, only exist through story telling. From the moment a person is born, stories are thrust upon them about who they are, what they do and where they belong - picture the numerous football outfits designed for babies to display which team they support, as if a baby can make a choice.
What we have managed to do is take the natural concept of territory, a way of living with other groups whilst still ensuring enough resources and space for survival, and morphed it so that we actively oppose the ideas, voices, stories and even people from outside the territory to a point that it is detrimental to human progress.
Human beings developed out of our ability to tell stories; that’s stories about ourselves, who we are as people, who we are in relation to other people, and who we are in relation to the world or universe.
Evolutionarily, seeing the ‘other’ as a potential threat or a source of danger, kept people safe. The pessimistic mind, the one scared of the noises in the bushes at night, kept those people alive and they were able to pass their pessimistic genes on to the next generation. When we lived in small groups, as hunter-gatherers and the first farmers, establishing the dichotomy between us and them kept the community safe. The unfamiliar is dangerous after all. Story telling began as a way of conveying social meaning.
Before written language emerged, people relied on stories to share important histories and cultural ideas as well as enforce social cohesion within their community. Research shows that “Story telling is a powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms, and it pays valuable dividends to the story tellers themselves, improving their chances of being chosen as social partners, receiving community support and even having healthy offspring.” Telling stories, as in fairy tales, teaches children important social skills such as empathy and justice, which helps them grow into nice people and cohesive members of the community.
Stories also serve the function of recording the histories of communities. A brilliant example of this comes from the Nage people from the Isle of Flores in Indonesia. They have shared myths of the Ebu Gogo, a short people with “ wide and flat noses, broad faces with large mouths and hairy bodies” for centuries. Archaeological studies have confirmed the existence of the Ebu Gogo as a “human sub-species that overlapped with the Homo sapiens population before going extinct more than 10,000 years ago.” The fact that Homo sapiens’ interactions with Homo Floresiensis have been remembered in the myths and stories of the Nage people today is truly astounding - I can’t even remember what I did last week.
Story telling strengthens the sense of community and belonging by sharing in a collective history and narrative. But story telling, in this way, also heightens fear of the unknown, of the ‘other’.
This unconscious black and white way of seeing kept those small groups of people alive. “Good” and “bad” are actually “known” and “unknown”. This mentality can be seen today in popular fiction of books and films where the evil characters have a “grotesque appearance” or “foreign accents”. It exploits our evolutionary fear of the unknown to create evil characters, which is only adding to the unfounded hatred (read fear) of other people by supremacists and nationalists.
Living as we do now in a global community there is no room for an us and them mentality. There is just human, in all our colourful, creative diversity. There is only human and that is the story we need to tell ourselves now.
Our entire ego is constructed through the stories we tell ourselves every day. Every aspect of ourselves - our talents, our hobbies, our strengths, our weaknesses, our qualities - are all stories we have developed in order to define ourselves. There is nothing wrong with having stories about who you are as a person as long as you acknowledge that perception shapes reality. Having stories about ourselves helps us to create our identities – “how we think, what we feel, and how we justify [...] decisions.” Stories shape our sense of self and our ego and we always have the choice and the power to change our own narratives.
Individually we have to learn to tell ourselves the most helpful stories - that we are worthwhile, that we are important, that we are brilliant. The more we feed our perception these stories, the more they will become a reality. When we can learn to accept ourselves, we can learn to accept others.
Literary stories also help us to show more kindness to ourselves and others. Studies involving brain scans have found that “reading or hearing stories activated various areas of the cortex that are known to be involved in social and emotional processing, and the more people read fiction, the easier they find it to empathise with other people.” This is because the brain doesn’t distinguish much between emotional feelings from imaginary sources and those from experienced reality. That is to say, the brain processes fictional narratives and factual life in a similar way. When you cry at a sad film your brain processes the emotional information as though you were experiencing the sad situation yourself instead of watching it.
Everybody has stories to tell. Each culture finds its context in stories. They explain traditions, share knowledge, describe histories and convey meaning. Stories keep cultures alive. Stories share myths and legends as well as connection and truth. The stories we believe in are the eyes through which we see the world.
The way that we talk to ourselves and the way that we share in collective stories about ourselves is astonishing. People get so caught up in their stories because it gives them something to believe in and somewhere to belong – a need which evolved out of necessity. As I’ve said, by creating strong social bonding within groups we also establish a fear of the ‘other’.
From an evoluntionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. However, we don’t live in small close knit groups any more. We live in a metropolitan, multicultural, global community now. It isn’t constructive to fear the ‘other’ anymore. It would be most helpful to accept, acknowledge and pay attention to everyone for the progress and betterment of humanity and the planet.
Human life has changed so dramatically over the 20th century, it’s no wonder that we’re all struggling to adapt. Everything about humanity is constructed through stories. Complex social rules and dynamics are taught to children through fairy tales, just as the mysteries of existence are explained through religious texts. We are constantly seeking to gain knowledge of and understand the world around us but are limited by the capacities of the human brain - so we seek to simplify things in order to understand them.
The thing that makes humanity so incredible, though, is precisely in our capacity to tell stories. The human imagination seems endless and with this we are able to shape everything around us to suit ourselves. Entire worlds have been born of human imagination - think of all the books, films and tv shows that didn't exist until someone made up a story. We tell ourselves stories about who we are and what we can do, often in a limiting way, but every single one of us has the ability to change the story. We need to stop being so attached to our stories and allow them to be flexible and grow with us.
The art of story telling lies in recognising that we can control the stories, that we have the power to change our stories and realising that we have a responsibility to use that power and change our stories for the better.